What leaving frontline practice taught me about social work

Swapping local authority social work for academia has shown me there’s plenty these two worlds can learn from each other

Photo: nu1983/fotolia

By a social worker and lecturer

Two and a half years ago, I made the transition from social work practitioner to university lecturer. Now I’m happily established in my new role I thought I’d offer some reflections on these two environments and what it feels like to make this transition.

One of the most striking differences is the resources available. Although I know financial constraints are a real issue in universities, and my department struggles with this, the pressures face seem nothing compared to my years in social services.

‘My team was constantly restructured’

This is particularly true of the austerity-driven past five years. My social work team were constantly restructured. We lost our offices, our admin workers, and even had to account for basic stationary. The constraints were so pervasive that I came to accept this environment of working. I thought managing a team without a desk of my own, and carrying my resources in the boot of my car was quite normal. The joy of a desk continues to please me.

Another marked difference is the comparative level of politicisation between practitioners and academics. Social justice has always been key to my motivation in social work yet there is something in the increasingly bureaucratic local authorities, that stifles the spark in so many of us.

Reflection takes time

Reflection takes time, protest takes even longer. When you are struggling to get by on a day-to-day basis it is not easy to engage with the process of questioning and unpacking the deeper assumptions behind our roles.

I carried out some research where I asked social workers if they engaged with issues of poverty and social issues with their practice supervisor and teams. Very few participants reported with this level of reflection, which Gillian Ruch describes as the critical level.

I am very grateful for social work academics who play a huge part in keeping these issues live for the profession. Yet I also worry for our qualifying students who set off into the unchartered waters of their career committed to social justice and a critical approach only to potentially find little welcome of this in their new workplaces.


There are, however, also many areas where academia can learn from the practice within social services departments. One of the things that has most struck me in retrospect is how deeply collaborative the social work teams I have worked in are. The opportunities and demands of working directly with service users tends to engender a sense of team purpose and mutual assistance that is distinct and very valuable, yet it is easy to take for granted.

University departments tend to have a different culture. There is often very good collaboration but overall culture is more individualistic. Academics need to promote their own writing and research, to meet the increasingly onerous demands of the Research Excellence Framework and other university pressures.

People are also more ambitious. There is an assumption you will be seeking promotion. In social work teams, upwards ambition is not taken for granted in the same way. There is a common understanding of how difficult many social work management jobs are, and in my experience, people getting promotions are as likely to be pitied as they are envied!


Another aspect of working in social care that I miss is supervision. As someone who has previously researched and written about supervision, I am well versed in how important it is. Yet this has become even more real as I observe what happens when we don’t have the accountability, opportunity for reflection, developmental advice and support that good supervision brings.

Luckily, I have alternative sources of support but I still think I could benefit from this more in-depth assistance with my role. Students are complicated too, and the question of career development seems particularly pertinent as I work out how to prioritise and focus my time and energies with the many opportunities and demands in a university department.

I see on a day-to-day basis how a culture of supervision would improve efficiency and outcomes, although I imagine it is wishful thinking to imagine that universities will be keen to learn from social care in this regard.

Crossing the divide

Although it is good to be able to learn from both organisations it is not necessarily easy to cross the divide between them. There is a lot of talk about imposter syndrome in academia but I felt less of an imposter and more of an alien.

The skills and knowledge I brought, whilst recognised and valued by my immediate social work colleagues, are not the qualities valued by the wider university, where research success is what brings value and status.

Even though I am one of the rare social workers how became involved in research whilst still practicing, I still feel like a beginner compared to colleagues who have decades of experience within a university environment. The language and elitism around research is also hard to penetrate and I’m not sure universities make much effort to make it accessible. I still can’t pronounce phenomenological (this is a type of research) let alone know what it entails.

The new initiatives of teaching partnerships between universities and social services departments aim to bring together teaching and practice more effectively, with practitioners teaching in universities and lecturers going out and getting involved in practice. Whilst there will be substantial benefits to this it may not be an easy divide to cross; the cultures are very different, and both organisations face significant, but different, drivers and pressures.

I hope that despite this, we can work together better in providing a more coherent learning experience for students and newly qualified social workers. After all, not only are we in this together, we have a lot we could learn from each other.

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5 Responses to What leaving frontline practice taught me about social work

  1. stuart February 21, 2017 at 6:33 pm #

    Very interesting article thank you, but how disappointing I find it that research, although valued of course, seems to be valued more highly than ability to teach (or facilitate learning I suppose if we want to be pedantic).

    My employer did a deal with one of the local universities that led to them delivering a series of training days for every social worker in the authority. They were so far removed from relevant to our actual work that attendance quickly shrank to something only a tad over 50% of eligible staff.

    It left me thinking the Unis have more to learn about the job they are meant to be preparing students for than most of them would care to admit – I’m sure there must be a connection between this and the emphasis / value reportedly placed on research (aka. hiding in academia) over preparation for practice (aka. teaching about the real job).

    Please don’t get the impression I don’t value research, I also am a practitioner who manages to combine it with daily work and I also spent several years teaching & tutoring uni. students, I just want to see universities in closer touch with the world of work for which they are meant to prepare their students.

    Failing that there’ll be no improvement in retention of new social workers who are fed on (important) theory about politics and idealised aspirations for social change and stuff like that but a paucity of skills for integrating those aspirations into the realities of the field of employment and for even surviving never mind thriving therein.

    • Phillip Mitchell February 23, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

      Couldn’t agree more.

      It is the integration of theory and practice that is so crucially lacking in many areas of the university curriculum and, indeed, in a large percentage of the training courses on offer from many providers. There is a real, tangible space (void) between ‘awareness’ raising courses on the one hand and the research/academia of the universities.

      That space is currently occupied by the practitioner struggling to put into practice what is disseminated and battling stress, high caseloads, low morale hot desking, little practical admin support, high turnover rates… noted here:


      As this article notes, solutions need to be multi-faceted and innovative and must include high quality training that enables the practitioner to be able to ‘ground’ the reality of day to day practice with academia and legislation. There are some excellent AMHP courses that illustrate just what can be done and this way of teaching, based on realities of practice, should become the norm.

      • Jade March 1, 2017 at 4:13 pm #

        Hi Phillip!

        Having read your comment I wondered if you could help me. Are you an independent social worker by any chance?

        I am a third year Early Childhood Studies student looking for practicing independent social workers to complete a questionnaire for my dissertation! The dissertation is based upon the social workers perspective of how their learnt practice enables them to help maltreated children with feelings of shame. I am particularly interested in the correlation between early maltreatment and crime, looking at the emotion of shame as a mediator between the two! This is the basis for my research.

        I noticed you commented on the areas that university courses are lacking, which is almost exactly what I am researching, but in relation to the emotions related to early maltreatment that have a tendency to significantly effect outcomes for children.

        If you are an independent social worker and can offer your time to fill out one of my questionnaires that would be wonderful and so helpful! I will comment back with means of contact if you can.

        Thank you for your time!

  2. Corinne Luisa Brown February 23, 2017 at 9:24 pm #

    Thankyou, the article was great. I am a social worker, working with adults.

    I agree with all of the replys to your article. Glad I am not alone in the struggles.

  3. michelle February 25, 2017 at 1:27 pm #

    I agree with the points made in the article and the commentary that follows. Thank you for sharing. I might add, though, that despite the gap between academia and the front line social workers, there is another gap at least as wide. This is the gap between the social workers in shelters, agencies and services and the survivors of violence against women.

    There is another level of pressure and stress, completely apolitical, that often neither body addresses – lived experience. Attempts in recent years to have survivors included at Board tables or engaged in committees with joint representation have mostly failed. Survivors, when listing barriers in society they face, frequently cite the social workers and other service providers as being as far removed from reality as the social workers might claim the research arm of academia is.

    So even with achievements in the battle for the governments’ pennies, social justice activists fall short of reaching people who need assistance.

    Further, the front line workers and organizations are so caught up in the political war of daily survival (over 300 turned away from full shelters in Canada EVERY night), that by necessity the majority of their work is reactive or crisis oriented. They are reduced to “putting out fires” instead of preventing the arsonists from starting them.

    In our community, survivors are now working WITH the community at large, including as many collaborative efforts as possible with Violence Against Women sector front line representatives. We have some and are seeking more survivors, men, women, representation from marginalized people (youth, Elders, Immigrants, Aboriginals, Disabled persons, and LGBTQ). We are working with the educational institutions to put names and faces to that research angle. We are proactively educating and advocating through public awareness to PREVENT woman abuse.

    Within the VAW sector, once very supportive of our efforts, we are now often shunned. Whether this is due to politics, jealousy or a lack of respect for the lived experience, or the fact that we invite men to worth WITH women as opposed to in silos, is unclear. We continue to focus on collaboration wherever we have the opportunity.

    Interestingly enough, some of our members are academics or professional family therapists. Also interesting is the fact that as we have no source of funding at present, we are not bound by politics or bureaucracy. As a result, we have accomplished more in the year since we opened our doors to the community than in the previous five years treating woman abuse as a “women’s” issue.

    In fact, we are working proactively to end domestic violence, have expanded our scope to include sexual assault and other forms of violence, and have reason to hope that we are actually making a difference by using combined resources of lived experience, academia, public or published statistics and research reports and front line experience.

    However, most of all, our hope rests with the willing and able involvement and support from municipal governments, local MP’s and MPP’s, and, of course the residents and employers in our community.

    There are many gaps to be bridged in all aspects of social justice. We encourage you to continue to bridge them for all the advantages collaboration can bring, to make your projects proactive in nature, and to engage people who have lived experience to share in all you do.

    Help those of us who are survivors ensure that the trauma we survived is not in vain, and can be used to support others like us effectively. Thank you.